Whether you manage a large nonprofit with thousands of donors or a small nonprofit with only a handful of supporters, fundraising is vital to operations. But developing a nonprofit fundraising event can be a daunting task to undertake.
The following article will outline the basics of nonprofit fundraising events, and provide you with seven easy-to-follow steps for creating effective, engaging, and entertaining events that will contribute to a robust fundraising strategy your organization can rely on.
What Are the Types of Nonprofit Fundraising Events?
There are all sorts of fundraising events that a nonprofit organization can host and each type serves a different function depending on what the organization’s objective is?
Aside from donor cultivation, events can help engage your audience as well as staff, board, and volunteers. Events can create strong, tangible connections between event participants and the organization’s mission and vision, and help better illustrate the impact charitable dollars have on programming.
Some of the most common types of fundraising events that nonprofit organizations host include:
- Formal galas
- Presentations featuring experts and speakers of note
- Workshops or skill-based learning opportunities
- Races or walk-a-thons
Depending on the goals and mission of the organization in question, fundraising teams can get creative and tailor these types of fundraising events to align explicitly with their cause.
For example, the Chicago Public Library Foundation hosts a Read-A-Thon every year to support the city’s public library system. Not only does this fundraiser raise crucial revenue for the library system, but it also uniquely engages its audience and advances its mission by having donors participate directly with their cause by cracking open a good book!
Understanding the basic types of fundraising events is just the beginning—it is up to you and your team to design an event that can effectively cultivate donors while exemplifying your organization’s impact in a fun and appealing way.
7 Steps to Creating a Successful Nonprofit Fundraising Event
Creating a successful fundraising event is a lot of work and should not be something you undertake without a clearly defined plan and expectations. Events require great attention to detail, flexibility, and an ability to manage several moving parts all at once.
That may sound intimidating—but don’t give up yet!
Following these seven simple steps will position you to design a truly incredible fundraising event. This guide will give you the tools you need to successfully navigate the event planning and execution process.
Let’s dive in:
1. Establish a Clear Objective
No nonprofit organization should create a fundraising event without establishing a clear objective or purpose. No event should be created just for the sake of it. Careful planning and diligence is necessary to ensure your event is a tremendous success!
You and your team should determine organizational needs to help establish your main objective and set a clear purpose for your event. If your ultimate fundraising goal for the event is ill-defined at the onset of the planning process, it will only make the subsequent steps more difficult. Creating S.M.A.R.T. goals is a great way to help set clear fundraising objectives and assess your organization’s financial development:
While each criterion may not be relevant to every fundraising goal you set, it is helpful to use these as a guide to help you establish the amount your organization needs to raise. Identifying your specific objectives is the crucial first step in your fundraiser planning process.
2. Identify the Event Type
As outlined in the previous section, there are many common event types to choose from when you begin the planning phase of your fundraiser.
Many nonprofit organizations host annual galas as a thank you to their long-time supporters and major donors while celebrating the impact of their work. Others host Races and walk-a-thons to fundraise specific amounts through entry fees while encouraging participants to engage a wider audience by asking for pledges and support.
Are you aiming to cultivate major donors? Do you hope to court monthly donors to establish a sustainable revenue stream? Does your organization have specific programmatic needs? Answering these questions will help guide you to the best type of fundraising event for your nonprofit.
3. Secure Sponsorships
Many events can come with a fairly significant price tag. Vendors, venue rental, catering, staff, production equipment, and other overhead costs all add up, and you will need to find a way to meet the needs of your specific event’s budget. That means securing corporate event sponsorships.
It is important to be strategic in soliciting corporate sponsorship dollars. Research potential sponsors and identify corporate giving programs that align with your mission and vision. Make certain that solicitations are made to corporations that explicitly fund events as part of their corporate giving, and rely on your existing networks (e.g. board members, community groups, major donors, etc.) to connect with potential sponsors.
Corporate sponsorships are not only vital for funding your nonprofit’s fundraising event, but they are an excellent way to create a partnership with a recognizable and well-connected institution. Check out our post on how to make a compelling case to corporate funders for more sponsorship tips and tricks.
4. Set a Date
You have set your goal, identified the type of fundraiser, and secured funding. You are halfway there!
Setting a date and time for your event is one of the most important decisions you’ll need to make, and like every other step in the planning process, you will need to think deeply and strategically about when your event will take place.
Should your event be on a weekend or weeknight? Is this an event that occurs annually? What other events are scheduled in your community that may conflict? Make sure to take these questions into account before deciding when to host your fundraiser.
If it is an annual event you may want to set the date for the same time it occurred the year before. Get a sense of your audience’s general availability before deciding on a weeknight or weekend. For example, if your audience is mostly professionals who work during the week, you may not want to have your event on a Monday at the beginning of the work week when many professionals are busy with other important obligations.
It is also imperative to make sure you are giving yourself enough time to thoroughly plan for your event. No need to rush! You want to make sure you have more than enough time to prepare.
5. Coordinate Staff for the Event
You can rest assured that the day of your event will be busy, busy, busy! You will need all hands on deck on the day of, so be sure to coordinate enough staff and volunteers to support event operations.
Depending on the type of event you may have to contract with external partners and vendors to oversee certain aspects of the event. You may need to hire a professional photographer, a sound and light mixer, bartenders, servers, security, and many other external event staff whose expertise does not fall within the skill set of your organization’s existing team.
Many nonprofit organizations operate on shoestring budgets with a small staff and rely on their volunteers to provide critical support for events and major projects. PAWS Chicago welcomes volunteers to carry out numerous tasks on the day of their events including registration, set up and take down, greeting, and raffle ticket sales.
Need help ensuring that you have more than enough helpers on the day of your event? Check out this list of volunteer recruitment and retention strategies.
6. Promote the Event
Make sure you do not forget about the most important aspect of your event: your guests!
Appropriately marketing your event is essential to ensuring that your event is well attended to promote socializing, networking, and a sense of community that will result in more giving and more engagement.
Your organization may already be engaging your audience through diverse communications channels. However, you should not rely exclusively on your existing marketing assets. When it comes to a successful event, you will want to make use of as many promotional tools as possible to reach new potential donors and supporters.
Depending on the size and scope of your event you could consider print ads in newspapers and magazines, commuter ads on buses and trains, or flyers to let your community know about your upcoming event.
Project Mobility, a nonprofit organization located in St. Charles, Illinois, created an easy to access webpage for their upcoming 5K fundraiser. The web page features beautifully designed content that catches your attention and is usable across diverse media and multiple platforms.
7. Execute the Event
The day has finally arrived! It is time to expertly execute your event.
By making sure you have followed the previous steps prior to this one, you should be well positioned for a successful fundraising event. However, you should always plan for last minute changes, obstacles, and issues to arise. Nothing is ever perfect and something with as many moving parts as a nonprofit fundraiser is sure to face a couple of missteps.
Luckily, with the knowledge you’ve gathered from this guide you are well prepared to meet any day-of challenges head on! Flexibility is the name of the game when it comes time to execute your event. Be sure to stay calm and meet any potential crises with a cool head.
On the day of, it is important to lean on what is important—your organization’s mission and the important work you do. Connect with others and make a case for support with everyone you interact with. Remember: your organization is the reason everyone has come together for the event.
Examples of Successful Nonprofit Fundraising Events
Still unsure of where to begin? Sometimes the best way to learn is to learn by example.
Researching fundraising events of other nonprofit organizations that align with your mission and vision can spark inspiration and help guide you to the best fundraising event for you and your nonprofit.
One example of a successful nonprofit fundraising event is Chicago-based Women Employed’s annual event The Working Lunch. The Working Lunch has been the organization’s headline event, going strong since its inception in 1987. Their 2022 keynote speaker was Dr. Ngozi Ezike, who spearheaded the State’s emergency pandemic response and is the first Black woman to head the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH).
While gala fundraisers are always an incredible way to honor the achievements of your organization and broader community, nonprofits find great success hosting more interactive events as well.
Every spring, the town of Cottage Grove in Wisconsin hosts the Parkinson’s Half Marathon, 5K, and 1K Walk and Kid’s Run. Managed by the Wisconsin chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association, it is the number one fundraiser for the organization’s Wisconsin branch bringing in over $400,000 in donations.
The event brings together the entire community, offering different challenges for participants with different skill levels to take part in. This is an excellent way to engage a wider audience targeting serious and professional marathon runners, active joggers, walkers, and families.
Alternatives to Fundraising Events for Nonprofits
While fundraising events can prove hugely successful for some organizations, they are not always the right choice. There are a multitude of ways your organization can develop a robust fundraising strategy without relying on special events.
Some examples include but are not limited to:
- Peer-to-Peer Fundraising: The undeniable ubiquity of social media has allowed peer-to-peer fundraising to become a catalyst for successful long-term and short-term fundraising campaigns for nonprofit organizations. Tapping into existing online social networks allows nonprofits to leverage existing supporters to engage their own community and bring in revenue through individually led donation drives—all accomplished with the use of free, easily accessible social media platforms and websites.
- Grants: Many nonprofit organizations rely primarily on public and private grants to fund their work. Grants allow organizations to innovate and develop new programs and initiatives. Grants also open organizations up to new networks and relationships with well-connected foundations and community groups that provide funding, support, and partnerships to help advance their mission and vision. Instrumental is a great resource for helping nonprofits find and apply for grants that align with their mission and goals.
- Online Donations: Individual giving through online donations has exploded in recent years. Nonprofit organizations that strategically design their websites to highlight their donation button and donation page can see record-breaking increases in revenue.
Wrapping Up: How to Start a Successful Nonprofit Fundraising Event in 7 Steps
Fundraising events can be catalytic fundraising mechanisms. Events can help deeply engage your audience in your programming and mission, help cultivate new donors by bringing them into a community of like-minded supporters, and can help sustain your organization's operations.
With this guide at your disposal, you will be able to tackle all of the unique challenges associated with nonprofit fundraising events and develop your very own unique and engaging event that will get a multitude of donors invested in your work.
Go ahead and get started!